by Sylvannia Garutch
Herlin Riley was born where jazz has its deepest roots. A native of New Orleans, Riley became a burgeoning drummer at the age of three. Though trumpet became his primary instrument in high school, he went back to drums in college. After graduating, he spent three years as a member of a band led by Ahmad Jamal. Then working with Wynton Marsalis as a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, including Marsalis’s small groups. In fact, Riley played a large part in developing the drum parts for Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album, Blood on the Fields. He is a lecturer in percussion for the jazz studies program at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He has also worked with George Benson, Harry Connick, Jr., and Marcus Roberts.
His latest endeavor Perpetual Optimism speaks to the eternalness of Riley’s music. Released on Mack Avenue in April of 2019, it comes on the heels of the highly regarded New Direction, also on Mack Avenue, after his long-standing discography on Criss Cross.
“Be There When I Get There” is rhythmically adventuresome, with shifting patterns, feels and excellent counterpoint. Riley and Hall lay down a funky sixteenth based feel that is used to develop many melodic fragments by Cohen, Louis and Harris. The result is a complex and exciting listen that has depth of texture and colors, but most importantly, it feels great! Louis’ solo is modern with a bluesy influence. His use of wide intervals and motifs is developed in a musical manner. Harris has a warm and focused sound that presents his musical ideas. He is very interactive with Cohen’s voicings as Riley propels the solo higher. Cohen and Riley are a force of nature, together they build Cohen’s solo to be the best of the track. The ensemble returns to the melody and Riley makes it clear that as a leader he is just as ardent and focused as ever.
“Borders Without Lines” finds the ensemble stretching their muscle on an up-tempo swing feel. Again, the melody has plenty of rhythmic spice with band hits and call and responses. Riley’s percolating up-tempo swing feel bristles with a joyous spirit and his fellow musicians obviously feel it too. Cohen’s driving piano solo is a full musical adventure. His use of voicings and single note lines are impeccable. Harris is melodic as ever, as he starts the back and forth trading with Louis. This keeps the energy up and adds a nice variety to the sound of the track. Riley takes a ride himself, setting a Latinish ostinato figure, the drummer effortlessly turns out rhythmic phrases that are melodic and passionate. Another great musical statement by this outstanding ensemble.
Perpetual Optimism is an apt title, as Riley is certainly the propulsionist on this date. His optimistic feels and inventive commentary add to the overall success of the date. Surrounded by an equally adept supporting cast, this distinctly straight-ahead date is an aural treat.